Rousseau’s Political Thought
- Subject Area: Political Theory
Source: Introduction to Rousseau's The Social Contract and Discourses by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, translated with an Introduction by G.D. H. Cole (London and Toronto: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1923).
For the study of the great writers and thinkers of the past, historical imagination is the first necessity. Without mentally referring to the environment in which they lived, we cannot hope to penetrate below the inessential and temporary to the absolute and permanent value of their thought. Theory, no less than action, is subject to these necessities; the form in which men cast their speculations, no less than the ways in which they behave, are the result of the habits of thought and action which they find around them. Great men make, indeed, individual contributions to the knowledge of their times; but they can never transcend the age in which they live. The questions they try to answer will always be those their contemporaries are asking; their statement of fundamental problems will always be relative to the traditional statements that have been handed down to them. When they are stating what is most startlingly new, they will be most likely to put it in an old-fashioned form, and to use the inadequate ideas and formulæ of tradition to express the deeper truths towards which they are feeling their way. They will be most the children of their age, when they are rising most above it.
Rousseau has suffered as much as any one from critics without a sense of history. He has been cried up and cried down by democrats and oppressors with an equal lack of understanding and imagination. His name, a hundred and fifty years after the publication of the Social Contract, is still a controversial watchword and a party cry. He is accepted as one of the greatest writers France has produced; but even now men are inclined, as political bias prompts them, to accept or reject his political doctrines as a whole, without sifting them or attempting to understand and discriminate. He is still revered or hated as the author who, above all others, inspired the French Revolution.
At the present day, his works possess a double significance. They are important historically, alike as giving us an insight into the mind of the eighteenth century, and for the actual influence they have had on the course of events in Europe. Certainly no other writer of the time has exercised such an influence as his. He may fairly be called the parent of the romantic movement in art, letters and life; he affected profoundly the German romantics and Goethe himself; he set the fashion of a new introspection which has permeated nineteenth century literature; he began modern educational theory; and, above all, in political thought he represents the passage from a traditional theory rooted in the Middle Ages to the modern philosophy of the State. His influence on Kant’s moral philosophy and on Hegel’s philosophy of Right are two sides of the same fundamental contribution to modern thought. He is, in fact, the great forerunner of German and English Idealism.
It would not be possible, in the course of a short introduction, to deal both with the positive content of Rousseau’s thought and with the actual influence he has had on practical affairs. The statesmen of the French Revolution, from Robespierre downwards, were throughout profoundly affected by the study of his works. Though they seem often to have misunderstood him, they had on the whole studied him with the attention he demands. In the nineteenth century, men continued to appeal to Rousseau, without, as a rule, knowing him well or penetrating deeply into his meaning. “The Social Contract,” says M. Dreyfus-Brisac, “is the book of all books that is most talked of and least read.” But with the great revival of interest in political philosophy there has come a desire for the better understanding of Rousseau’s work. He is again being studied more as a thinker and less as an ally or an opponent; there is more eagerness to sift the true from the false, and to seek in the Social Contract the “principles of political right,” rather than the great revolutionary’s ipse dixit in favour of some view about circumstances which he could never have contemplated.
The Social Contract, then, may be regarded either as a document of the French Revolution, or as one of the greatest books dealing with political philosophy. It is in the second capacity, as a work of permanent value containing truth, that it finds a place among the world’s great books. It is in that capacity also that it will be treated in this introduction. Taking it in this aspect, we have no less need of historical insight than if we came to it as historians pure and simple. To understand its value we must grasp its limitations; when the questions it answers seem unnaturally put, we must not conclude that they are meaningless; we must see if the answer still holds when the question is put in a more up-to-date form.
First, then, we must always remember that Rousseau is writing in the eighteenth century, and for the most part in France. Neither the French monarchy nor the Genevese aristocracy loved outspoken criticism, and Rousseau had always to be very careful what he said. This may seem a curious statement to make about a man who suffered continual persecution on account of his subversive doctrines; but, although Rousseau was one of the most daring writers of his time, he was forced continually to moderate his language and, as a rule, to confine himself to generalisation instead of attacking particular abuses. Rousseau’s theory has often been decried as too abstract and metaphysical. This is in many ways its great strength; but where it is excessively so, the accident of time is to blame. In the eighteenth century it was, broadly speaking, safe to generalise and unsafe to particularise. Scepticism and discontent were the prevailing temper of the intellectual classes, and a short-sighted despotism held that, as long as they were confined to these, they would do little harm. Subversive doctrines were only regarded as dangerous when they were so put as to appeal to the masses; philosophy was regarded as impotent. The intellectuals of the eighteenth century therefore generalised to their hearts’ content, and as a rule suffered little for their lèse-majesté: Voltaire is the typical example of such generalisation. The spirit of the age favoured such methods, and it was therefore natural for Rousseau to pursue them. But his general remarks had such a way of bearing very obvious particular applications, and were so obviously inspired by a particular attitude towards the government of his day, that even philosophy became in his hands unsafe, and he was attacked for what men read between the lines of his works. It is owing to this faculty of giving his generalisations content and actuality that Rousseau has become the father of modern political philosophy. He uses the method of his time only to transcend it; out of the abstract and general he creates the concrete and universal.
Secondly, we must not forget that Rousseau’s theories are to be studied in a wider historical environment. If he is the first of modern political theorists, he is also the last of a long line of Renaissance theorists, who in turn inherit and transform the concepts of mediæval thought. So many critics have spent so much wasted time in proving that Rousseau was not original only because they began by identifying originality with isolation: they studied first the Social Contract by itself, out of relation to earlier works, and then, having discovered that these earlier works resembled it, decided that everything it had to say was borrowed. Had they begun their study in a truly historical spirit, they would have seen that Rousseau’s importance lies just in the new use he makes of old ideas, in the transition he makes from old to new in the general conception of politics. No mere innovator could have exercised such an influence or hit on so much truth. Theory makes no great leaps; it proceeds to new concepts by the adjustment and renovation of old ones. Just as theological writers on politics, from Hooker to Bossuet, make use of Biblical terminology and ideas; just as more modern writers, from Hegel to Herbert Spencer, make use of the concept of evolution, Rousseau uses the ideas and terms of the Social Contract theory. We should feel, throughout his work, his struggle to free himself from what is lifeless and outworn in that theory, while he develops out of it fruitful conceptions that go beyond its scope. A too rigid literalism in the interpretation of Rousseau’s thought may easily reduce it to the possession of a merely “historical interest”: if we approach it in a truly historical spirit, we shall be able to appreciate at once its temporary and its lasting value, to see how it served his contemporaries, and at the same time to disentangle from it what may be serviceable to us and for all time.
Rousseau’s Emile, the greatest of all works on education, has already been issued in this series. In this volume are contained the most important of his political works. Of these the Social Contract, by far the most significant, is the latest in date. It represents the maturity of his thought, while the other works only illustrate his development. Born in 1712, he issued no work of importance till 1750; but he tells us, in the Confessions, that in 1743, when he was attached to the Embassy at Venice, he had already conceived the idea of a great work on Political Institutions, “which was to put the seal on his reputation.” He seems, however, to have made little progress with this work, until in 1749 he happened to light on the announcement of a prize offered by the Academy of Dijon for an answer to the question, “Has the progress of the arts and sciences tended to the purification or to the corruption of morality?” His old ideas came thronging back, and sick at heart of the life he had been leading among the Paris lumières, he composed a violent and rhetorical diatribe against civilisation generally. In the following year, this work, having been awarded the prize by the Academy, was published by its author. His success was instantaneous; he became at once a famous man, the “lion” of Parisian literary circles. Refutations of his work were issued by professors, scribblers, outraged theologians and even by the King of Poland. Rousseau endeavoured to answer them all, and in the course of argument his thought developed. From 1750 to the publication of the Social Contract and Emile in 1762 he gradually evolved his views: in those twelve years he made his unique contribution to political thought.
The Discourse on the Arts and Sciences, the earliest of the works reproduced in this volume, is not in itself of very great importance. Rousseau has given his opinion of it in the Confessions. “Full of warmth and force, it is wholly without logic or order; of all my works it is the weakest in argument and the least harmonious. But whatever gifts a man may be born with, he cannot learn the art of writing in a moment.” This criticism is just. The first Discourse neither is, nor attempts to be, a reasoned or a balanced production. It is the speech of an advocate, wholly one-sided and arbitrary, but so obviously and naïvely one-sided, that it is difficult for us to believe in its entire seriousness. At the most, it is only a rather brilliant but flimsy rhetorical effort, a sophistical improvisation, but not a serious contribution to thought. Yet it is certain that this declamation made Rousseau’s name, and established his position as a great writer in Parisian circles. D’Alembert even devoted the preface of the Encyclopædia to a refutation. The plan of the first Discourse is essentially simple: it sets out from the badness, immorality and misery of modern nations, traces all these ills to the departure from a “natural” state, and then credits the progress of the arts and sciences with being the cause of that departure. In it, Rousseau is already in possession of his idea of “nature” as an ideal; but he has at present made no attempt to discriminate, in what is unnatural, between good and bad. He is merely using a single idea, putting it as strongly as he can, and neglecting all its limitations. The first Discourse is important not for any positive doctrine it contains, but as a key to the development of Rousseau’s mind. Here we see him at the beginning of the long journey which was to lead on at last to the theory of the Social Contract.
In 1755 appeared the Discourse on the Origin and Foundation of Inequality among Men, which is the second of the works given in this volume. With this essay, Rousseau had unsuccessfully competed in 1753 for a second prize offered by the Academy of Dijon, and he now issued it prefaced by a long Dedication to the Republic of Geneva. In this work, which Voltaire, in thanking him for a presentation copy, termed his “second book against the human race,” his style and his ideas have made a great advance; he is no longer content merely to push a single idea to extremes: while preserving the broad opposition between the state of nature and the state of society, which runs through all his work, he is concerned to present a rational justification of his views and to admit that a little at any rate may be said on the other side. Moreover, the idea of “nature” has already undergone a great development; it is no longer an empty opposition to the evils of society; it possesses a positive content. Thus half the Discourse on Inequality is occupied by an imaginary description of the state of nature, in which man is shown with ideas limited within the narrowest range, with little need of his fellows, and little care beyond provision for the necessities of the moment. Rousseau declares explicitly that he does not suppose the “state of nature” ever to have existed: it is a pure “idea of reason,” a working concept reached by abstraction from the “state of society.” The “natural man,” as opposed to “man’s man,” is man stripped of all that society confers upon him, a creature formed by a process of abstraction, and never intended for a historical portrait. The conclusion of the Discourse favours not this purely abstract being, but a state of savagery intermediate between the “natural” and the “social” conditions, in which men may preserve the simplicity and the advantages of nature and at the same time secure the rude comforts and assurances of early society. In one of the long notes appended to the Discourse, Rousseau further explains his position. He does not wish, he says, that modern corrupt society should return to a state of nature: corruption has gone too far for that; he only desires now that men should palliate, by wiser use of the fatal arts, the mistake of their introduction. He recognises society as inevitable and is already feeling his way towards a justification of it. The second Discourse represents a second stage in his political thought: the opposition between the state of nature and the state of society is still presented in naked contrast; but the picture of the former has already filled out, and it only remains for Rousseau to take a nearer view of the fundamental implications of the state of society for his thought to reach maturity.
Rousseau is often blamed, by modern critics, for pursuing in the Discourses a method apparently that of history, but in reality wholly unhistorical. But it must be remembered that he himself lays no stress on the historical aspect of his work; he gives himself out as constructing a purely ideal picture, and not as depicting any actual stages in human history. The use of false historical concepts is characteristic of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and Rousseau is more to be congratulated on having escaped from giving them too much importance than criticised for employing them at all.
It is doubtful whether the Discourse on Political Economy, first printed in the great Encyclopædia in 1755, was composed before or after the Discourse on Inequality. At first sight the former seems to be far more in the manner of the Social Contract and to contain views belonging essentially to Rousseau’s constructive period. It would not, however, be safe to conclude from this that its date is really later. The Discourse on Inequality still has about it much of the rhetorical looseness of the prize essay; it aims not so much at close reasoning as at effective and popular presentation of a case. But, by reading between the lines, an attentive student can detect in it a great deal of the positive doctrine afterwards incorporated in the Social Contract. Especially in the closing section, which lays down the plan of a general treatment of the fundamental questions of politics, we are already to some extent in the atmosphere of the later works. It is indeed almost certain that Rousseau never attempted to put into either of the first two Discourses any of the positive content of his political theory. They were intended, not as final expositions of his point of view, but as partial and preliminary studies, in which his aim was far more destructive than constructive. It is clear that in first conceiving the plan of a work on Political Institutions, Rousseau cannot have meant to regard all society as in essence bad. It is indeed evident that he meant, from the first, to study human society and institutions in their rational aspect, and that he was rather diverted from his main purpose by the Academy of Dijon’s competition than first induced by it to think about political questions. It need, therefore, cause no surprise that a work probably written before the Discourse on Inequality should contain the germs of the theory given in full in the Social Contract. The Discourse on Political Economy is important as giving the first sketch of the theory of the “General Will.” It will readily be seen that Rousseau does not mean by “political economy” exactly what we mean nowadays. He begins with a discussion of the fundamental nature of the State, and the possibility of reconciling its existence with human liberty, and goes on with an admirable short study of the principles of taxation. He is thinking throughout of “political” in the sense of “public” economy, of the State as the public financier, and not of the conditions governing industry. He conceives the State as a body aiming at the well-being of all its members and subordinates all his views of taxation to that end. He who has only necessaries should not be taxed at all; superfluities should be supertaxed; there should be heavy imposts on every sort of luxury. The first part of the article is still more interesting. Rousseau begins by demolishing the exaggerated parallel so often drawn between the State and the family; he shows that the State is not, and cannot be, patriarchal in nature, and goes on to lay down his view that its real being consists in the General Will of its members. The essential features of the Social Contract are present in this Discourse almost as if they were commonplaces, certainly not as if they were new discoveries on which the author had just hit by some happy inspiration. There is every temptation, after reading the Political Economy, to suppose that Rousseau’s political ideas really reached maturity far earlier than has generally been allowed.
The Social Contract finally appeared, along with Emile, in 1762. This year, therefore, represents in every respect the culmination of Rousseau’s career. Henceforth, he was to write only controversial and confessional works; his theories were now developed, and, simultaneously, he gave to the world his views on the fundamental problems of politics and education. It is now time to ask what Rousseau’s system, in its maturity, finally amounted to. The Social Contract contains practically the whole of his constructive political theory; it requires to be read, for full understanding, in connection with his other works, especially Emile and the Letters on the Mount (1764), but in the main it is self-contained and complete. The title sufficiently defines its scope. It is called The Social Contract or Principles of Political Right, and the second title explains the first. Rousseau’s object is not to deal, in a general way, like Montesquieu, with the actual institutions of existing States, but to lay down the essential principles which must form the basis of every legitimate society. Rousseau himself, in the fifth book of the Emile, has stated the difference clearly. “Montesquieu,” he says, “did not intend to treat of the principles of political right; he was content to treat of the positive right (or law) of established governments; and no two studies could be more different than these.” Rousseau then conceives his object as being something very different from that of the Spirit of the Laws, and it is a wilful error to misconstrue his purpose. When he remarks that “the facts,” the actual history of political societies, “do not concern him,” he is not contemptuous of facts; he is merely asserting the sure principle that a fact can in no case give rise to a right. His desire is to establish society on a basis of pure right, so as at once to disprove his attack on society generally and to reinforce his criticism of existing societies.
Round this point centres the whole dispute about the methods proper to political theory. There are, broadly speaking, two schools of political theorists, if we set aside the psychologists. One school, by collecting facts, aims at reaching broad generalisations about what actually happens in human societies; the other tries to penetrate to the universal principles at the root of all human combination. For the latter purpose facts may be useful, but in themselves they can prove nothing. The question is not one of fact, but one of right.
Rousseau belongs esentially to this philosophical school. He is not, as his less philosophic critics seem to suppose, a purely abstract thinker generalising from imaginary historical instances; he is a concrete thinker trying to get beyond the inessential and changing to the permanent and invariable basis of human society. Like Green, he is in search of the principle of political obligation, and beside this quest all others fall into their place as secondary and derivative. It is required “to find a form of association able to defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of every associate, and of such a nature that each, uniting himself with all, may still obey only himself, and remain as free as before. This is the fundamental problem of which the Social Contract provides the solution.” The problem of political obligation is seen as including all other political problems, which fall into place in a system based upon it. How, Rousseau asks, can the will of the State help being for me a merely external will, imposing itself upon my own? How can the existence of the State be reconciled with human freedom? How can man, who is born free, rightly come to be everywhere in chains?
No-one could help understanding the central problem of the Social Contract immediately, were it not that its doctrines often seem to be strangely formulated. We have seen that this strangeness is due to Rousseau’s historical position, to his use of the political concepts current in his own age, and to his natural tendency to build on the foundations laid by his predecessors. There are a great many people whose idea of Rousseau consists solely of the first words of the opening chapter of the Social Contract, “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” But, they tell you, man is not born free, even if he is everywhere in chains. Thus at the very outset we are faced with the great difficulty in appreciating Rousseau. When we should naturally say “man ought to be free,” or perhaps “man is born for freedom,” he prefers to say “man is born free,” by which he means exactly the same thing. There is doubtless, in his way of putting it, an appeal to a “golden age”; but this golden age is admittedly as imaginary as the freedom to which men are born is bound, for most of them, to be. Elsewhere Rousseau puts the point much as we might put it ourselves. “Nothing is more certain than that every man born in slavery is born for slavery. . . . But if there are slaves by nature, it is because there have been slaves against nature” (Social Contract, Book I, chap. ii).
We have seen that the contrast between the “state of nature” and the “state of society” runs through all Rousseau’s work. The Emile is a plea for “natural” education; the Discourses are a plea for a “naturalisation” of society; the New Héloīse is the romantic’s appeal for more “nature” in human relationships. What then is the position of this contrast in Rousseau’s mature political thought? It is clear that the position is not merely that of the Discourses. In them, he envisaged only the faults of actual societies; now, he is concerned with the possibility of a rational society. His aim is to justify the change from “nature” to “society,” although it has left men in chains. He is in search of the true society, which leaves men “as free as before.” Altogether, the space occupied by the idea of nature in the Social Contract is very small. It is used of necessity in the controversial chapters, in which Rousseau is refuting false theories of social obligation; but when once he has brushed aside the false prophets, he lets the idea of nature go with them, and concerns himself solely with giving society the rational sanction he has promised. It becomes clear that, in political matters at any rate, the “state of nature” is for him only a term of controversy. He has in effect abandoned, in so far as he ever held it, the theory of a human golden age; and where, as in the Émile, he makes use of the idea of nature, it is broadened and deepened out of all recognition. Despite many passages in which the old terminology cleaves to him, he means by “nature” in this period not the original state of a thing, nor even its reduction to the simplest terms: he is passing over to the conception of “nature” as identical with the full development of capacity, with the higher idea of human freedom. This view may be seen in germ even in the Discourse on Inequality, where, distinguishing selfrespect (amour de soi) from egoism (amour-propre), Rousseau makes the former, the property of the “natural” man, consist not in the desire for self-aggrandisement, but in the seeking of satisfaction for reasonable desire accompanied by benevolence; whereas egoism is the preference of our own interests to those of others, self-respect merely puts us on an equal footing with our fellows. It is true that in the Discourse Rousseau is pleading against the development of many human faculties; but he is equally advocating the fullest development of those he regards as “natural,” by which he means merely “good.” The “state of society,” as envisaged in the Social Contract, is no longer in contradiction to the “state of nature” upheld in the Emile, where indeed the social environment is of the greatest importance, and, though the pupil is screened from it, he is none the less being trained for it. Indeed the views given in the Social Contract are summarised in the fifth book of the Emile, and by this summary the essential unity of Rousseau’s system is emphasised.
Rousseau’s object, then, in the first words of the Social Contract, “is to inquire if, in the civil order, there can be any sure and certain rule of administration, taking men as they are and laws as they might be.” Montesquieu took laws as they were, and saw what sort of men they made: Rousseau, founding his whole system on human freedom, takes man as the basis, and regards him as giving himself what laws he pleases. He takes his stand on the nature of human freedom: on this he bases his whole system, making the will of the members the sole basis of every society.
In working out his theory, Rousseau makes use throughout of three general and, to some extent, alternative conceptions. These are the Social Contract, Sovereignty and the General Will. We shall now have to examine each of these in turn.
The Social Contract theory is as old as the sophists of Greece (see Plato, Republic, Book II and the Gorgias), and as elusive. It has been adapted to the most opposite points of view, and used, in different forms, on both sides of every question to which it could conceivably be applied. It is frequent in mediæval writers, a commonplace with the theorists of the Renaissance, and in the eighteenth century already nearing its fall before a wider conception. It would be a long, as well as a thankless, task to trace its history over again: it may be followed best in D. G. Ritchie’s admirable essay on it in Darwin and Hegel and Other Studies. For us, it is important only to regard it in its most general aspect, before studying the special use made of it by Rousseau. Obviously, in one form or another, it is a theory very easily arrived at. Wherever any form of government apart from the merest tyranny exists, reflection on the basis of the State cannot but lead to the notion that, in one sense or another, it is based on the consent, tacit or expressed, past or present, of its members. In this alone, the greater part of the Social Contract theory is already latent. Add the desire to find actual justification for a theory in facts, and, especially in an age possessed only of the haziest historical sense, this doctrine of consent will inevitably be given a historical setting. If in addition there is a tendency to regard society as something unnatural to humanity, the tendency will become irresistible. By writers of almost all schools, the State will be represented as having arisen, in some remote age, out of a compact or, in more legal phrase, contract between two or more parties. The only class that will be able to resist the doctrine is that which maintains the divine right of kings, and holds that all existing governments were imposed on the people by the direct interposition of God. All who are not prepared to maintain that will be partisans of some form or other of the Social Contract theory.
It is, therefore, not surprising that we find among its advocates writers of the most opposite points of view. Barely stated, it is a mere formula, which may be filled in with any content from absolutism to pure republicanism. And, in the hands of some at least of its supporters, it turns out to be a weapon that cuts both ways. We shall be in a better position to judge of its usefulness when we have seen its chief varieties at work.
All Social Contract theories that are at all definite fall under one or other of two heads. They represent society as based on an original contract either between the people and the government, or between all the individuals composing the State. Historically, modern theory passes from the first to the second of these forms.
The doctrine that society is founded on a contract between the people and the government is of mediæval origin. It was often supported by references to the Old Testament, which contains a similar view in an unreflective form. It is found in most of the great political writers of the sixteenth century; in Buchanan, and in the writings of James I: it persists into the seventeenth in the works of Grotius and Puffendorf. Grotius is sometimes held to have stated the theory so as to admit both forms of contract; but it is clear that he is only thinking of the first form as admitting democratic as well as monarchical government. We find it put very clearly by the Convention Parliament of 1688, which accuses James II of having “endeavoured to subvert the constitution of the kingdom by breaking the original contract between king and people.” While Hobbes, on the side of the royalists, is maintaining the contract theory in its second form, the Parliamentarian Algernon Sidney adheres to the idea of a contract between the people and the government.
In this form, the theory clearly admits of opposite interpretations. It may be held that the people, having given itself up once for all to its rulers, has nothing more to ask of them, and is bound to submit to any usage they may choose to inflict. This, however, is not the implication most usually drawn from it. The theory, in this form, originated with theologians who were also lawyers. Their view of a contract implied mutual obligations; they regarded the ruler as bound, by its terms, to govern constitutionally. The old idea that a king must not violate the sacred customs of the realm passes easily into the doctrine that he must not violate the terms of the original contract between himself and his people. Just as in the days of the Norman kings, every appeal on the part of the people for more liberties was couched in the form of a demand that the customs of the “good old times” of Edward the Confessor should be respected, so in the seventeenth century every act of popular assertion or resistance was stated as an appeal to the king not to violate the contract. The demand was a good popular cry, and it seemed to have the theorists behind it. Rousseau gives his refutation of this view, which he had, in the Discourse on Inequality, maintained in passing, in the sixteenth chapter of the third book of the Social Contract. (See also Book I, chap. iv, init.) His attack is really concerned also with the theory of Hobbes, which in some respects resembles, as we shall see, this first view; but, in form at least, it is directed against this form of contract. It will be possible to examine it more closely, when the second view has been considered.
The second view, which may be called the Social Contract theory proper, regards society as originating in, or based on, an agreement between the individuals composing it. It seems to be found first, rather vaguely, in Richard Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity, from which Locke largely borrowed: and it reappears, in varying forms, in Milton’s Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, in Hobbes’s Leviathan, in Locke’s Treatises on Civil Government, and in Rousseau. The best-known instance of its actual use is by the Pilgrim Fathers on the Mayflower in 1620, in whose declaration occurs the phrase, “We do solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God and of one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic.” The natural implication of this view would seem to be the corollary of complete popular Sovereignty which Rousseau draws. But before Rousseau’s time it had been used to support views as diverse as those which rested on the first form. We saw that, in Grotius’s great work, De Jure Belli et Pacis, it was already possible to doubt which of the two theories was being advocated. The first theory was, historically, a means of popular protest against royal aggression. As soon as popular government was taken into account, the act of contract between people and government became in effect merely a contract between the individuals composing the society, and readily passed over into the second form.
The second theory, in its ordinary form, expresses only the view that the people is everywhere Sovereign, and that, in the phrase of Milton’s treatise, “the power of kings and magistrates is only derivative.” Before, however, this view had been worked up into a philosophical theory, it had already been used by Hobbes to support precisely opposite principles. Hobbes agrees that the original contract is one between all the individuals composing the State, and that the government is no party to it; but he regards the people as agreeing, not merely to form a State, but to invest a certain person or certain persons with the government of it. He agrees that the people is naturally supreme, but regards it as alienating its Sovereignty by the contract itself, and delegating its power, wholly and for ever, to the government. As soon, therefore, as the State is set up, the government becomes for Hobbes the Sovereign; there is no more question of popular Sovereignty, but only of passive obedience: the people is bound, by the contract, to obey its ruler, no matter whether he governs well or ill. It has alienated all its rights to the Sovereign, who is, therefore, absolute master. Hobbes, living in a time of civil wars, regards the worst government as better than anarchy, and is, therefore, at pains to find arguments in support of any form of absolutism. It is easy to pick holes in this system, and to see into what difficulties a conscientious Hobbist might be led by a revolution. For as soon as the revolutionaries get the upper hand, he will have to sacrifice one of his principles: he will have to side against either the actual or the legitimate Sovereign. It is easy also to see that alienation of liberty, even if possible for an individual, which Rousseau denies, cannot bind his posterity. But, with all its faults, the view of Hobbes is on the whole admirably, if ruthlessly, logical, and to it Rousseau owes a great deal.
The special shape given to the second Social Contract theory by Hobbes looks, at first sight, much like a combination, into a single act, of both the contracts. This, however, is not the view he adopts. The theory of a contract between government and people had, as we have seen, been used mainly as a support for popular liberties, a means of assertion against the government. Hobbes, whose whole aim is to make his government Sovereign, can only do this by leaving the government outside the contract: he thus avoids the necessity of submitting it to any obligation whatsoever, and leaves it absolute and irresponsible. He secures, in fact, not merely a State which has unbounded rights against the individual, but a determinate authority with the right to enforce those rights. His theory is not merely Statism (étatisme); it is pure despotism.
It is clear that, if such a theory is to be upheld, it can stand only by the view, which Hobbes shares with Grotius, that a man can alienate not merely his own liberty, but also that of his descendants, and that, consequently, a people as a whole can do the same. This is the point at which both Locke and Rousseau attack it. Locke, whose aim is largely to justify the Revolution of 1688, makes government depend, not merely at its institution, but always, on the consent of the governed, and regards all rulers as liable to be displaced if they govern tyrannically. He omits, however, to provide any machinery short of revolution for the expression of popular opinion, and, on the whole, seems to regard the popular consent as something essentially tacit and assumed. He regards the State as existing mainly to protect life and property, and is, in all his assertions of popular rights, so cautious as to reduce them almost to nothing. It is not till we come to Rousseau that the second form of the contract theory is stated in its purest and most logical form.
Rousseau sees clearly the necessity, if popular consent in government is to be more than a name, of giving it some constitutional means of expression. For Locke’s theory of tacit consent, he substitutes an active agreement periodically renewed. He looks back with admiration to the city-states of ancient Greece and, in his own day, reserves his admiration for the Swiss free cities, Berne and, above all, Geneva, his native place. Seeing in the Europe of his day no case in which representative government was working at all democratically, he was unable to conceive that means might be found of giving effect to this active agreement in a nation-state; he therefore held that self-government was impossible except for a city. He wished to break up the nation-states of Europe, and create instead federative leagues of independent city-states.
It matters, however, comparatively little, for the appreciation of Rousseau’s political theory in general, that he failed to become the theorist of the modern State. By taking the State, which must have, in essentials, everywhere the same basis, at its simplest, he was able, far better than his predecessors, to bring out the real nature of the “social tie,” an alternative name which he often uses for the Social Contract. His doctrine of the underlying principle of political obligation is that of all great modern writers, from Kant to Mr. Bosanquet. This fundamental unity has been obscured only because critics have failed to put the Social Contract theory in its proper place in Rousseau’s system.
This theory was, we have seen, a commonplace. The amount of historical authenticity assigned to the contract almost universally presupposed varied enormously. Generally, the weaker a writer’s rational basis, the more he appealed to history—and invented it. It was, therefore, almost inevitable that Rousseau should cast his theory into the contractual form. There were, indeed, writers of his time who laughed at the contract, but they were not writers who constructed a general system of political philosophy. From Cromwell to Montesquieu and Bentham, it was the practically minded man, impatient of unactual hypotheses, who refused to accept the idea of contract. The theorists were as unanimous in its favour as the Victorians were in favour of the “organic” theory. But we, criticising them in the light of later events, are in a better position for estimating the position the Social Contract really took in their political system. We see that Locke’s doctrine of tacit consent made popular control so unreal that he was forced, if the State was to have any hold, to make his contract historical and actual, binding posterity for all time, and that he was also led to admit a quasi-contract between people and government, as a second vindication of popular liberties. Rousseau, on the other hand, bases no vital argument on the historical nature of the contract, in which, indeed, he clearly does not believe. “How,” he asks, “did this change [from nature to society] come about?” And he answers that he does not know. Moreover, his aim is to find “a sure and legitimate rule of administration, taking men as they are and laws as they might be”; that is to say, his Social Contract is something which will be found at work in every legitimate society, but which will be in abeyance in all forms of despotism. He clearly means by it no more and no less than the fundamental principle of political association, the basis of the unity which enables us, in the State, to realise political liberty by giving up lawlessness and license. The presentation of this doctrine in the quasi-historical form of the Social Contract theory is due to the accident of the time and place in which Rousseau wrote. At the same time, the importance of the conception is best to be seen in the hard death it dies. Though no-one, for a hundred years or so, has thought of regarding it as historical, it has been found so hard to secure any other phrase explaining as well or better the basis of political union that, to this day, the phraseology of the contract theory largely persists. A conception so vital cannot have been barren.
It is indeed, in Rousseau’s own thought, only one of the three different ways in which the basis of political union is stated, according to the preoccupation of his mind. When he is thinking quasi-historically, he describes his doctrine as that of the Social Contract. Modern anthropology, in its attempts to explain the complex by means of the simple, often strays further from the straight paths of history and reason. In a semi-legal aspect, using the terminology, if not the standpoint, of jurisprudence, he restates the same doctrine in the form of popular Sovereignty. This use tends continually to pass over into the more philosophical form which comes third. “Sovereignty is the exercise of the general will.” Philosophically, Rousseau’s doctrine finds its expression in the view that the State is based not on any original convention, not on any determinate power, but on the living and sustaining rational will of its members. We have now to examine first Sovereignty and then the General Will, which is ultimately Rousseau’s guiding conception.
Sovereignty is, first and foremost, a legal term, and it has often been held that its use in political philosophy merely leads to confusion. In jurisprudence, we are told, it has the perfectly plain meaning given to it in Austin’s famous definition. The Sovereign is “a determinate human superior, not in a habit of obedience to a like superior, but receiving habitual obedience from the bulk of a given society.” Where Sovereignty is placed is, on this view, a question purely of fact, and never of right. We have only to seek out the determinate human superior in a given society, and we shall have the Sovereign. In answer to this theory, it is not enough, though it is a valuable point, to show that such a determinate superior is rarely to be found. Where, for instance, is the Sovereign of England or of the British Empire? Is it the King, who is called the Sovereign? Or is it the Parliament, which is the legislature (for Austin’s Sovereign is regarded as the source of law)? Or is it the electorate, or the whole mass of the population, with or without the right of voting? Clearly all these exercise a certain influence in the making of laws. Or finally, is it now the Cabinet? For Austin, one of these bodies would be ruled out as indeterminate (the mass of the population) and another as responsible (the Cabinet). But are we to regard the House of Commons or those who elect it as forming part of the Sovereign? The search for a determinate Sovereign may be a valuable legal conception; but it has evidently nothing to do with political theory.
It is, therefore, essential to distinguish between the legal Sovereign of jurisprudence, and the political Sovereign of political science and philosophy. Even so, it does not at once become clear what this political Sovereign may be. Is it the body or bodies of persons in whom political power in a State actually resides? Is it merely the complex of actual institutions regarded as embodying the will of the society? This would leave us still in the realm of mere fact, outside both right and philosophy. The Sovereign, in the philosophical sense, is neither the nominal Sovereign, nor the legal Sovereign, nor the political Sovereign of fact and common sense: it is the consequence of the fundamental bond of union, the restatement of the doctrine of Social Contract, the foreshadowing of that of General Will. The Sovereign is that body in the State in which political power ought always to reside, and in which the right to such power does always reside.
The idea at the back of the philosophical conception of Sovereignty is, therefore, essentially the same as that we found to underlie the Social Contract theory. It is the view that the people, whether it can alienate its right or not, is the ultimate director of its own destinies, the final power from which there is no appeal. In a sense, this is recognised even by Hobbes, who makes the power of his absolute Sovereign, the predecessor of Austin’s “determinate human superior,” issue first of all from the Social Contract, which is essentially a popular act. The difference between Hobbes and Rousseau on this point is solely that Rousseau regards as inalienable a supreme power which Hobbes makes the people alienate in its first corporate action. That is to say, Hobbes in fact accepts the theory of popular supremacy in name only to destroy it in fact; Rousseau asserts the theory in its only logical form, and is under no temptation to evade it by means of false historical assumptions. In Locke, a distinction is already drawn between the legal and the actual Sovereign, which Locke calls “supreme power”; Rousseau unites the absolute Sovereignty of Hobbes and the “popular consent” of Locke into the philosophic doctrine of popular Sovereignty, which has since been the established form of the theory. His final view represents a return from the perversions of Hobbes to a doctrine already familiar to mediæval and Renaissance writers; but it is not merely a return. In its passage the view has fallen into its place in a complete system of political philosophy.
In a second important respect Rousseau differentiates himself from Hobbes. For Hobbes, the Sovereign is identical with the government. He is so hot for absolutism largely because he regards revolution, the overthrow of the existing government, as at the same time the dissolution of the body politic, and a return to complete anarchy or to the “state of nature.” Rousseau and, to some extent, Locke meet this view by sharp division between the supreme power and the government. For Rousseau, they are so clearly distinct that even a completely democratic government is not at the same time the Sovereign; its members are sovereign only in a different capacity and as a different corporate body, just as two different societies may exist for different purposes with exactly the same members. Pure democracy, however, the government of the State by all the people in every detail, is not, as Rousseau says, a possible human institution. All governments are really mixed in character; and what we call a democracy is only a more or less democratic government. Government, therefore, will always be to some extent in the hands of selected persons. Sovereignty, on the other hand, is in his view absolute, inalienable, indivisible, and indestructible. It cannot be limited, abandoned, shared or destroyed. It is an essential part of all social life that the right to control the destinies of the State belongs in the last resort to the whole people. There clearly must in the end be somewhere in the society an ultimate court of appeal, whether determinate or not; but, unless Sovereignty is distinguished from government, the government, passing under the name of Sovereign, will inevitably be regarded as absolute. The only way to avoid the conclusions of Hobbes is, therefore, to establish a clear separation between them.
Rousseau tries to do this by an adaptation of the doctrine of the “three powers.” But instead of three independent powers sharing the supreme authority, he gives only two, and makes one of these wholly dependent on the other. He substitutes for the co-ordination of the legislative, the executive, and the judicial authorities, a system in which the legislative power, or Sovereign, is always supreme, the executive, or government, always secondary and derivative, and the judicial power merely a function of government. This division he makes, naturally, one of will and power. The government is merely to carry out the decrees, or acts of will, of the Sovereign people. Just as the human will transfers a command to its members for execution, so the body politic may give its decisions force by setting up authority which, like the brain, may command its members. In delegating the power necessary for the execution of its will, it is abandoning none of its supreme authority. It remains Sovereign, and can at any moment recall the grants it has made. Government, therefore, exists only at the Sovereign’s pleasure, and is always revocable by the sovereign will.
It will be seen, when we come to discuss the nature of the General Will, that this doctrine really contains the most valuable part of Rousseau’s theory. Here, we are concerned rather with its limitations. The distinction between legislative and executive functions is in practice very hard to draw. In Rousseau’s case, it is further complicated by the presence of a second distinction. The legislative power, the Sovereign, is concerned only with what is general, the executive only with what is particular. This distinction, the full force of which can only be seen in connection with the General Will, means roughly that a matter is general when it concerns the whole community equally, and makes no mention of any particular class; as soon as it refers to any class or person, it becomes particular, and can no longer form the subject matter of an act of Sovereignty. However just this distinction may seem in the abstract, it is clear that its effect is to place all the power in the hands of the executive: modern legislation is almost always concerned with particular classes and interests. It is not, therefore, a long step from the view of Rousseau to the modern theory of democratic government, in which the people has little power beyond that of removing its rulers if they displease it. As long, however, as we confine our view to the city-state of which Rousseau is thinking, his distinction is capable of preserving for the people a greater actual exercise of will. A city can often generalise where a nation must particularise.
It is in the third book of the Social Contract, where Rousseau is discussing the problem of government, that it is most essential to remember that his discussion has in view mainly the city-state and not the nation. Broadly put, his principle of government is that democracy is possible only in small States, aristocracy in those of medium extent, and monarchy in great States (Book III, chap. iii). In considering this view, we have to take into account two things. First, he rejects representative government; will being, in his theory, inalienable, representative Sovereignty is impossible. But, as he regards all general acts as functions of Sovereignty, this means that no general act can be within the competence of a representative assembly. In judging this theory, we must take into account all the circumstances of Rousseau’s time. France, Geneva and England were the three States he took most into account. In France, representative government was practically non-existent; in Geneva, it was only partially necessary; in England, it was a mockery, used to support a corrupt oligarchy against a debased monarchy. Rousseau may well be pardoned for not taking the ordinary modern view of it. Nor indeed is it, even in the modern world, so satisfactory an instrument of the popular will that we can afford wholly to discard his criticism. It is one of the problems of the day to find some means of securing effective popular control over a weakened Parliament and a despotic Cabinet.
The second factor is the immense development of local government. It seemed to Rousseau that, in the nation-state, all authority must necessarily pass, as it had in France, to the central power. Devolution was hardly dreamed of; and Rousseau saw the only means of securing effective popular government in a federal system, starting from the small unit as Sovereign. The nineteenth century has proved the falsehood of much of his theory of government; but there are still many wise comments and fruitful suggestions to be found in the third book of the Social Contract and in the treatise on the Government of Poland, as well as in his adaptation and criticism of the Polysynodie of the Abbé de Saint-Pierre, a scheme of local government for France, born out of its due time.
The point in Rousseau’s theory of Sovereignty that offers most difficulty is his view (Book II, chap. vii) that, for every State, a Legislator is necessary. We shall understand the section only by realising that the legislator is, in fact, in Rousseau’s system, the spirit of institutions personified; his place, in a developed society, is taken by the whole complex of social custom, organisation and tradition that has grown up with the State. This is made clearer by the fact that the legislator is not to exercise legislative power; he is merely to submit his suggestions for popular approval. Thus Rousseau recognises that, in the case of institutions and traditions as elsewhere, will, and not force, is the basis of the State.
This may be seen in his treatment of law as a whole (Book II, chap. vi), which deserves very careful attention. He defines laws as “acts of the general will,” and, agreeing with Montesquieu in making law the “condition of civil association,” goes beyond him only in tracing it more definitely to its origin in an act of will. The Social Contract renders law necessary, and at the same time makes it quite clear that laws can proceed only from the body of citizens who have constituted the State. “Doubtless,” says Rousseau, “there is a universal justice emanating from reason alone; but this justice, to be admitted among us, must be mutual. Humbly speaking, in default of natural sanctions, the laws of justice are ineffective among men.” Of the law which set up among men this reign of mutual justice the General Will is the source.
We thus come at last to the General Will, the most disputed, and certainly the most fundamental, of all Rousseau’s political concepts. No critic of the Social Contract has found it easy to say either what precisely its author meant by it, or what is its final value for political philosophy. The difficulty is increased because Rousseau himself sometimes halts in the sense which he assigns to it, and even seems to suggest by it two different ideas. Of its broad meaning, however, there can be no doubt. The effect of the Social Contract is the creation of a new individual. When it has taken place, “at once, in place of the individual personality of each contracting party, the act of association creates a moral and collective body, composed of as many members as the assembly contains voters, and receiving from the act its unity, its common identity (moi commun), its life and its will” (Book I, chap. vi). The same doctrine had been stated earlier, in the Political Economy, without the historical setting. “The body politic is also a moral being, possessed of a will, and this general will, which tends always to the preservation and welfare of the whole and of every part, and is the source of the laws, constitutes for all the members of the State, in their relations to one another and to it, the rule of what is just or unjust.” It will be seen at once that the second statement, which could easily be fortified by others from the Social Contract, says more than the first. It is not apparent that the common will, created by the institution of society, need “tend always to the welfare of the whole.” Is not the common will at least as fallible as the will of a single individual? May it not equally be led away from its true interests to the pursuit of pleasure or of something which is really harmful to it? And, if the whole society may vote what conduces to the momentary pleasure of all the members and at the same time to the lasting damage of the State as a whole, is it not still more likely that some of the members will try to secure their private interests in opposition to those of the whole and of others? All these questions, and others like them, have been asked by critics of the conception of the General Will.
Two main points are involved, to one of which Rousseau gives a clear and definite answer. “There is often,” he says, “a great deal of difference between the will of all and the general will; the latter takes account only of the common interest, while the former takes private interest into account, and is no more than a sum of particular wills.” “The agreement of all interests is formed by opposition to that of each” (Book II, chap. iii). It is indeed possible for a citizen, when an issue is presented to him, to vote not for the good of the State, but for his own good; but, in such a case, his vote, from the point of view of the General Will, is merely negligible. But “does it follow that the general will is exterminated or corrupted? Not at all: it is always constant, unalterable, and pure; but it is subordinated to other wills which encroach upon its sphere. . . . The fault [each man] commits [in detaching his interest from the common interest] is that of changing the state of the question, and answering something different from what he is asked. Instead of saying by his vote ‘It is to the advantage of the State,’ he says, ‘It is to the advantage of this or that man or party that this or that view should prevail.’ Thus the law of public order in assemblies is not so much to maintain in them the general will as to secure that the question be always put to it, and the answer always given by it” (Book IV, chap. i). These passages, with many others that may be found in the text, make it quite clear that by the General Will Rousseau means something quite distinct from the Will of All, with which it should never have been confused. The only excuse for such confusion lies in his view that when, in a city-state, all particular associations are avoided, votes guided by individual self-interest will always cancel one another, so that majority voting will always result in the General Will. This is clearly not the case, and in this respect we may charge him with pushing the democratic argument too far. The point, however, can be better dealt with at a later stage. Rousseau makes no pretence that the mere voice of a majority is infallible; he only says, at the most, that, given his ideal conditions, it would be so.
The second main point raised by critics of the General Will is whether in defining it as a will directed solely to the common interest, Rousseau means to exclude acts of public immorality and short-sightedness. He answers the questions in different ways. First, an act of public immorality would be merely an unanimous instance of selfishness, different in no particular from similar acts less unanimous, and therefore forming no part of a General Will. Secondly, a mere ignorance of our own and the State’s good, entirely unprompted by selfish desires, does not make our will anti-social or individual. “The general will is always right and tends to the public advantage; but it does not follow that the deliberations of the people are always equally correct. Our will is always for our own good, but we do not always see what that is: the people is never corrupted, but it is often deceived, and on such occasions only does it seem to will what is bad” (Book II, chap. iii). It is impossible to acquit Rousseau in some of the passages in which he treats of the General Will, of something worse than obscurity—positive contradiction. It is probable, indeed, that he never quite succeeded in getting his view clear in his own mind; there is nearly always, in his treatment of it, a certain amount of muddle and fluctuation. These difficulties the student must be left to worry out for himself; it is only possible to present, in outline, what Rousseau meant to convey.
The treatment of the General Will in the Political Economy is brief and lucid, and furnishes the best guide to his meaning. The definition of it in this work, which has already been quoted, is followed by a short account of the nature of general wills as a whole. “Every political society is composed of other smaller societies of various kinds, each of which has its interest and rules of conduct; but those societies which everybody perceives, because they have an external or authorised form, are not the only ones that actually exist in the State: all individuals who are united by a common interest compose as many others, either temporary or permanent, whose influence is none the less real because it is less apparent. . . . The influence of all these tacit or formal associations causes by the influence of their will as many modifications of the public will. The will of these particular societies has always two relations; for the members of the association, it is a general will; for the great society, it is a particular will; and it is often right with regard to the first object and wrong as to the second. The most general will is always the most just, and the voice of the people is, in fact, the voice of God.”
The General Will, Rousseau continues in substance, is always for the common good; but it is sometimes divided into smaller general wills, which are wrong in relation to it. The supremacy of the great General Will is “the first principle of public economy and the fundamental rule of government.”
In this passage, which differs only in clearness and simplicity from others in the Social Contract itself, it is easy to see how far Rousseau had in his mind a perfectly definite idea. Every association of several persons creates a new common will; every association of a permanent character has already a “personality” of its own, and in consequence a “general” will; the State, the highest known form of association, is a fully developed moral and collective being with a common will which is, in the highest sense yet known to us, general. All such wills are general only for the members of the associations which exercise them; for outsiders, or rather for other associations, they are purely particular wills. This applies even to the State; “for, in relation to what is outside it, the State becomes a simple being, an individual” (Social Contract, Book I, chap. vii). In certain passages in the Social Contract, in his criticism of the Abbé de Saint-Pierre’s Project of Perpetual Peace, and in the second chapter of the original draft of the Social Contract, Rousseau takes into account the possibility of a still higher individual, “the federation of the world.” In the Political Economy, thinking of the nation-state, he affirms what in the Social Contract (Book II, chap. iii) he denies of the city, and recognises that the life of a nation is made up of the whole complex of its institutions, and that the existence of lesser general wills is not necessarily a menace to the General Will of the State. In the Social Contract, he only treats of these lesser wills in relation to the government, which, he shows, has a will of its own, general for its members, but particular for the State as a whole (Book III, chap. ii). This governmental will he there prefers to call corporate will, and by this name it will be convenient to distinguish the lesser general wills from the General Will of the State that is over them all.
So far, there is no great difficulty; but in discussing the infallibility of the General Will we are on more dangerous ground. Rousseau’s treatment here clearly oscillates between regarding it as a purely ideal conception, to which human institutions can only approximate, and holding it to be realised actually in every republican State, i. e. wherever the people is the Sovereign in fact as well as in right. Book IV, chap. ii is the most startling passage expressing the latter view. “When in the popular assembly a law is proposed, what the people is asked is not exactly whether it accepts or rejects the proposal, but whether it is in conformity with the general will, which is its will. . . . When, therefore, the opinion that is contrary to my own prevails, this proves neither more nor less than that I was mistaken, and that what I thought to be the general will was not so.” On his own principles laid down elsewhere, Rousseau would have to admit that it proves nothing of the sort, except in so far as the other voters have been guided by the general interest. Though he sometimes affirms the opposite, there is no security on his principles that the will of the majority will be the General Will. At the most it can only be said that there is a greater chance of its being general than of the will of any selected class of persons not being led away by corporate interests. The justification of democracy is not that it is always right, even in intention, but that it is more general than any other kind of supreme power.
Fundamentally, however, the doctrine of the General Will is independent of these contradictions. Apart from Kant’s narrow and rigid logic, it is essentially one with his doctrine of the autonomy of the will. Kant takes Rousseau’s political theory, and applies it to ethics as a whole. The germ of this application is already found in Rousseau’s own work; for he protests more than once against attempts to treat moral and political philosophy apart, as distinct studies, and asserts their absolute unity. This is brought out clearly in the Social Contract (Book I, chap. viii), where he is speaking of the change brought about by the establishment of society. “The passage from the state of nature to the civil state produces a very remarkable change in man, by substituting justice for instinct in his conduct, and giving his actions the morality they had hitherto lacked. . . . What man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to everything he tries to get and succeeds in getting; what he gains is civil liberty . . . which is limited by the general will. . . . We might, over and above all this, add to what man acquires in the civil state moral liberty, which alone makes him truly master of himself; for the mere impulse of appetite is slavery, while obedience to a law which we prescribe to ourselves is liberty.”
This one chapter contains the gist of the Kantian moral philosophy, and makes it quite clear that Rousseau perceived its application to ethics as well as to politics. The morality of our acts consists in their being directed in accordance with universal law; acts in which we are guided merely by our passions are not moral. Further, man can only possess freedom when his whole being is unified in the pursuit of a single end; and, as his whole being can be unified only in pursuit of a rational end, which alone excludes contradiction, only moral acts, only men directing their lives by universal law, are free. In Kantian language, the will is autonomous (i. e. prescribes to itself its own law) only when it is directed to a universal end; when it is guided by selfish passions, or particular considerations, it is heteronomous (i. e. receives its law from something external to itself), and in bondage. Rousseau, as he says (Book I, chap. viii), was not directly concerned with the ethical sense of the word “liberty,” and Kant was, therefore, left to develop the doctrine into a system; but the phrases of this chapter prove false the view that the doctrine of a Real Will arises first in connection with politics, and is only transferred thence to moral philosophy. Rousseau bases his political doctrine throughout on his view of human freedom; it is because man is a free agent capable of being determined by a universal law prescribed by himself that the State is in like manner capable of realising the General Will, that is, of prescribing to itself and its members a similar universal law.
The General Will, then, is the application of human freedom to political institutions. Before the value of this conception can be determined, there is a criticism to be met. The freedom which is realised in the General Will, we are told, is the freedom of the State as a whole; but the State exists to secure individual freedom for its members. A free State may be tyrannical; a despot may allow his subjects every freedom. What guarantee is there that the State, in freeing itself, will not enslave its members? This criticism has been made with such regularity that it has to be answered in some detail.
“The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before.” “The clauses of the contract . . . are everywhere the same and everywhere tacitly admitted and recognised. . . . These clauses, properly understood, may be reduced to one—the total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community . . .; for, if the individuals retained certain rights, as there would be no common superior to decide between them and the public, each, being on one point his own judge, would ask to be so on all, and the state of nature would continue” (Book I, chap. vi). Rousseau sees clearly that it is impossible to place any limits upon the power of the State; when the people combine into a State, they must in the end submit to be guided in all things by the will of the effective majority. Limited Sovereignty is a contradiction in terms; the Sovereign has a right to all that reason allows it, and as soon as reason demands that the State shall interfere, no appeal to individual rights can be made. What is best for the State must be suffered by the individual. This, however, is very far from meaning that the ruling power ought, or has the moral right, to interfere in every particular case. Rousseau has been subjected to much foolish criticism because, after upholding the State’s absolute supremacy, he goes on (Book II, chap. iv) to speak of “the limits of the sovereign power.” There is no contradiction whatsoever. Wherever State intervention is for the best, the State has a right to intervene; but it has no moral right, though it must have a legal right, to intervene where it is not for the best. The General Will, being always in the right, will intervene only when intervention is proper. “The Sovereign,” therefore, “cannot impose upon its subjects any fetters that are useless to the community, nor can it even wish to do so.” As, however, the infallibility of the General Will is not enough to make the State infallible, there still remains an objection. Since the General Will cannot always be arrived at, who is to judge whether an act of intervention is justified? Rousseau’s answer fails to satisfy many of his critics. “Each man alienates, I admit, by the social compact, only such part of his powers, goods and liberty as it is important for the community to control; but it must also be granted that the Sovereign is sole judge of what is important.” This, we are told, is mere State tyranny over again. But how is it possible to avoid such a conclusion? Rousseau has already given his reasons for objecting to a limited Sovereignty (Book I, chap. vi): it follows absolutely that we must take the best machinery we can find for the execution of the State’s functions. No doubt the machinery will be imperfect; but we can only try to get as near the General Will as possible, without hoping to realise it fully.
The answer, therefore, to the critics who hold that, in securing civil liberty Rousseau has sacrificed the individual may be put after this fashion. Liberty is not a merely negative conception; it does not consist solely in the absence of restraint. The purest individualist, Herbert Spencer for example, would grant that a certain amount of State interference is necessary to secure liberty; but as soon as this idea of securing liberty is admitted in the smallest degree, the whole idea has undergone profound modification. It can no longer be claimed that every interference on the part of the State lessens the liberty of the individual; the “liberty-fund” theory is as untenable as that of the “wages-fund”: the members of a State may be more free when all are restrained from doing one another mutual damage than when any one is left “free” to enslave another or be himself enslaved. This principle once admitted, the precise amount of State interference that is necessary to secure freedom will be always a matter for particular discussion; every case must be decided on its own merits, and, in right, the Sovereign will be omnipotent, or subject only to the law of reason.
It has often been held that Rousseau cannot really have inspired the French Revolution because this view is totally inconsistent with the “rights of man,” which the revolutionaries so fervently proclaimed. If every right is alienated in the Social Contract, what sense can there be in talking of “natural rights” afterwards? This, however, is to misrepresent Rousseau’s position. The rights of man as they are preached by the modern individualist, are not the rights of which Rousseau and the revolutionaries were thinking. We have seen that the theory of the Social Contract is founded on human freedom: this freedom carries with it, in Rousseau’s view, the guarantee of its own permanence; it is inalienable and indestructible. When, therefore, government becomes despotic, it has no more right over its subjects than the master has over his slave (Book I, chap. iv); the question is then purely one of might. In such cases, appeal may be made either to the terms of the Social Contract, or, putting the same idea another way, to the “natural right” of human freedom. This natural right is in no sense inconsistent with the complete alienation supposed in the Contract; for the Contract itself reposes on it and guarantees its maintenance. The Sovereign must, therefore, treat all its members alike; but, so long as it does this, it remains omnipotent. If it leaves the general for the particular, and treats one man better than another, it ceases to be Sovereign; but equality is already presupposed in the terms of the Contract.
It is more profitable to attack Rousseau for his facile identification of the interests of each of the citizens with those of all; but here, too, most of the critics have abused their opportunity. He does not maintain that there can be no opposition between a man’s particular interests and the General Will as present in him; on the contrary, he explicitly and consistently affirms the presence of such opposition (Book I, chap. vii). What he asserts is, first, that the Sovereign, as such, cannot have any interest contrary to the interest of the citizens as a whole—that is obvious; and, secondly, that it cannot have an interest contrary to that of any individual. The second point Rousseau proves by showing that the omnipotence of the Sovereign is essential to the preservation of society, which in turn is necessary for the individual. His argument, however, really rests on the fundamental character of the General Will. He would admit that, in any actual State, the apparent interest of the many might often conflict with that of the few; but he would contend that the real interest of State and individual alike, being subject to universal law, could not be such as to conflict with any other real interest. The interest of the State, in so far as it is directed by the General Will, must be the interest of every individual, in so far as he is guided by his real will, that is, in so far as he is acting universally, rationally and autonomously.
Thus the justification of Rousseau’s theory of liberty returns to the point from which it set out—the omnipotence of the real will in State and individual. It is in this sense that he speaks of man in the State as “forced to be free” by the General Will, much as Kant might speak of a man’s lower nature as forced to be free by the universal mandate of his higher, more real and more rational will. It is in this recognition of the State as a moral being, with powers of determination similar to the powers of the individual mind, that the significance of the General Will ultimately lies. Even, however, among those who have recognised its meaning, there are some who deny its value as a conception of political philosophy. If, they say, the General Will is not the Will of All, if it cannot be arrived at by a majority vote or by any system of voting whatsoever, then it is nothing; it is a mere abstraction, neither general, nor a will. This is, of course, precisely the criticism to which Kant’s “real will” is often subjected. Clearly, it must be granted at once that the General Will does not form the whole actual content of the will of every citizen. Regarded as actual, it must always be qualified by “in so far as” or its equivalent. This, however, is so far from destroying the value of the conception that therein lies its whole value. In seeking the universal basis of society, we are not seeking anything that is wholly actualised in any State, though we must be seeking something which exists, more or less perfectly, in every State.
The point of the Social Contract theory, as Rousseau states it, is that legitimate society exists by the consent of the people, and acts by popular will. Active will, and not force or even mere consent, is the basis of the “republican” State, which can only possess this character because individual wills are not really self-sufficient and separate, but complementary and interdependent. The answer to the question “Why ought I to obey the General Will?” is that the General Will exists in me and not outside me. I am “obeying only myself,” as Rousseau says. The State is not a mere accident of human history, a mere device for the protection of life and property; it responds to a fundamental need of human nature, and is rooted in the character of the individuals who compose it. The whole complex of human institutions is not a mere artificial structure; it is the expression of the mutual dependence and fellowship of men. If it means anything, the theory of the General Will means that the State is natural, and the “state of nature” an abstraction. Without this basis of will and natural need, no society could for a moment subsist; the State exists and claims our obedience because it is a natural extension of our personality.
The problem, however, still remains of making the General Will, in any particular State, active and conscious. It is clear that there are States in which visible and recognised institutions hardly answer in any respect to its requirements. Even in such States, however, there is a limit to tyranny; deep down, in immemorial customs with which the despot dare not interfere, the General Will is still active and important. It does not reside merely in the outward and visible organisation of social institutions, in that complex of formal associations which we may call the State; its roots go deeper and its branches spread further. It is realised, in greater or less degree, in the whole life of the community, in the entire complex of private and public relations which, in the widest sense, may be called Society. We may recognise it not only in a Parliament, a Church, a University or a Trade Union, but also in the most intimate human relationships, and the most trivial, as well as the most vital, social customs.
But, if all these things go to the making of the General Will in every community, the General Will has, for politics, primarily a narrower sense. The problem here is to secure its supremacy in the official institutions and public councils of the nation. This is the question to which Rousseau chiefly addressed himself. Here, too, we shall find the General Will the best possible conception for the guidance of political endeavour. For the General Will is realised not when that is done which is best for the community, but when, in addition, the community as a whole has willed the doing of it. The General Will demands not only good government, but also self-government—not only rational conduct, but good-will. This is what some of Rousseau’s admirers are apt to forget when they use his argument, as he himself was sometimes inclined to use it, in support of pure aristocracy. Rousseau said that aristocracy was the best of all governments, but he said also that it was the worst of all usurpers of Sovereignty. Nor must it be forgotten that he expressly specified elective aristocracy. There is no General Will unless the people wills the good. General Will may be embodied in one man willing universally; but it can only be embodied in the State when the mass of the citizens so wills. The will must be “general” in two senses: in the sense in which Rousseau used the word, it must be general in its object, i. e. universal; but it must also be generally held, i. e. common to all or to the majority.1
The General Will is, then, above all a universal and, in the Kantian sense, a “rational” will. It would be possible to find in Rousseau many more anticipations of the views of Kant; but it is better here to confine comment to an important difference between them. It is surprising to find in Kant, the originator of modern “intellectualism,” and in Rousseau, the great apostle of “sentiment,” an essentially similar view on the nature and function of the will. Their views, however, present a difference; for, whereas the moving force of Kant’s moral imperative is purely “rational,” Rousseau finds the sanction of his General Will in human feeling itself. As we can see from a passage in the original draft of the Social Contract, the General Will remains purely rational. “No-one will dispute that the General Will is in each individual a pure act of the understanding, which reasons while the passions are silent on what a man may demand of his neighbour and on what his neighbour has a right to demand of him.” The will remains purely rational, but Rousseau feels that it needs an external motive power. “If natural law,” he writes, “were written only on the tablets of human reason it would be incapable of guiding the greater part of our actions; but it is also graven on the heart of man in characters that cannot be effaced, and it is there it speaks to him more strongly than all the precepts of the philosophers” (from an unfinished essay on The State of War). The nature of this guiding sentiment is explained in the Discourse on Inequality (p. 197, note 2), where egoism (amour-propre) is contrasted with self-respect (amour de soi). Naturally, Rousseau holds, man does not want everything for himself, and nothing for others. “Egoism” and “altruism” are both one-sided qualities arising out of the perversion of man’s “natural goodness.” “Man is born good,” that is, man’s nature really makes him desire only to be treated as one among others, to share equally. This natural love of equality (amour de soi) includes love of others as well as love of self, and egoism, loving one’s self at the expense of others, is an unnatural and perverted condition. The “rational” precepts of the General Will, therefore, find an echo in the heart of the “natural” man, and, if we can only secure the human being against perversion by existing societies, the General Will can be made actual.
This is the meeting-point of Rousseau’s educational with his political theory. His view as a whole can be studied only by taking together the Social Contract and the Emile as explained by the Letters on the Mount and other works. The fundamental dogma of the natural goodness of man finds no place directly in the Social Contract; but it lurks behind the whole of his political theory, and is indeed, throughout, his master-conception. His educational, his religious, his political and his ethical ideas are all inspired by a single consistent attitude. Here we have been attending only to his political theory; in the volume which is to follow, containing the Letters on the Mount and other works, some attempt will be made to draw the various threads together and estimate his work as a whole. The political works, however, can be read separately, and the Social Contract itself is still by far the best of all text-books of political philosophy. Rousseau’s political influence, so far from being dead, is every day increasing; and as new generations and new classes of men come to the study of his work, his conceptions, often hazy and undeveloped, but nearly always of lasting value, will assuredly form the basis of a new political philosophy, in which they will be taken up and transformed. This new philosophy is the work of the future; but, rooted upon the conception of Rousseau, it will stretch far back into the past. Of our time, it will be for all time; its solutions will be at once relatively permanent and ceaselessly progressive.
G. D. H. Cole.
A NOTE ON BOOKS
There are few good books in English on Rousseau’s politics. By far the best treatment is to be found in Mr. Bernard Bosanquet’s Philosophical Theory of the State. Viscount Morley’s Rousseau is a good life, but is not of much use as a criticism of views; Mr. W. Boyd’s The Educational Theory of Rousseau contains some fairly good chapters on the political views. D. G. Ritchie’s Darwin and Hegel includes an admirable essay on The Social Contract Theory and another on Sovereignty. The English translation of Professor Gran’s Rousseau is an interesting biography.
In French, there is a good cheap edition of Rousseau’s complete works published by Hachette in thirteen volumes. M. Dreyfus-Brisac’s great edition of the Contrat Social is indispensable, and there is a good small edition with notes by M. Georges Beaulavon. M. Faguet’s study of Rousseau in his Dix-huitième siècle—études littéraires and his Politique comparée de Montesquieu, Voltaire et Rousseau are useful, though I am seldom in agreement with them. M. Henri Rodet’s Le Contrat Social et les idées politiques de J. J. Rousseau is useful, if not inspired, and there are interesting works by MM. Chuquet, Fabre and Lemaitre. The French translation of Professor Höffding’s little volume on Rousseau: sa vie et sa philosophie is admirable.
Miss Foxley’s translation of the Emile, especially of Book V, should be studied in connection with the Social Contract. A companion volume, containing the Letters on the Mount and other works, will be issued shortly.
G. D. H. C.
Principal Works: Article in the Mercure in answer to one entitled Si le monde que nous habitons est une sphère ou une sphéroïde, 1738; Le Verger de Mme. de Warens, 1739; Sur la musique moderne, 1743; Si le rétablissement des Sciences et des Arts a contribué à épurer les Mœurs, prize essay, 1750, translated by R. Wynne, 1752, by anonymous author, 1760, by H. Smithers, 1818; Devin du Village (opera), 1753, translated by C. Burney, 1766; Narcisse, ou Amant de lui-même, 1753; Lettre sur la musique Française, 1753; Sur l’origine de l’inégalité parmi les hommes, 1755; Discours sur deux principes avancés par Rameau, 1755; Sur l’économie politique, 1758; Letter to d’Alembert on his article Genève in the Encyclopédie, 1758, translated 1759; Lettres à Voltaire, 1759; Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse, first published under the title of Lettres de deux amants, habitants d’une petite ville au pied des Alpes, etc., 1761; Contrat Social, or Principes du droit politique, 1762; Emile, ou De l’Education, 1762; Lettre à Christophe de Beaumont, Archevêque de Paris, 1763; Allée de Silvie (poem), 1763; Lettres écrites de la Montagne, 1764; De l’imitation théâtrale, 1764; Dictionnaire de musique, 1767, translated by W. Waring, 1779; Lettres sur son exil du Canton de Berne, 1770.
Posthumous Works: Emile et Sophie, 1780; Les consolations des misères de ma vie, 1781; Considérations sur le gouvernement de Pologne, 1782; Les Confessions, and Rêveries du Promeneur Solitaire, 4 vols., 1782–9; Nouveau Dédale, 1801; La Botanique de J. J. Rousseau, 1805; translated, with additional letters, by T. Martyn, 1785, 7th edition, 1807; Testament de J. J. Rousseau, 1820.
Translations: Héloïse (Eloisa), 1761, with a sequel found after the author’s death, 1784, 1795, 1810; Emile, by Nugent, 1763; anonymous translator the same year; abridged and annotated by W. H. Payne, 1893; Emile et Sophie, by Nugent, 1765 (?), by the translator of Eloisa, 1767; Contrat Social, 1764, 1791, in vol. iii. of Political Classics, 1795; 1840 (?), by R. M. Harrington, with Introduction by E. L. Walter, 1893; by H. J. Tozer 1895, 1902, 1905; Confessions, 2 vols., 1783; 1796–90, 1861, 1891 (Masterpieces of Foreign Authors), abridged from 1896 edition, with preface by G. J. Holyoake, 1857; complete translation (privately printed), 2 vols., 1896; with Introduction by Hesketh Milis (Sisley Books), 1907; the second part, with a new collection of letters, 3 vols., 1791.
Works: 1764 (6 vols.); 1769 (11 vols.); 1774 (London, 9 vols.); 1782, etc. (17 vols.); 1790 (33 vols.); 1790 (30 vols., or 35); 1788–93 (39 vols.); 1793–1800 (Didot, 18 vols.), and later editions from this same firm; Musset-Pathay, 1823–6.
Miscellaneous Works: 5 vols., 1767.
Posthumous Works: 1782, 1783; Œuvres inédites (Musset-Pathay), 1825, 1833; Fragments inédits, etc., by A. de Bougy, 1853; Œuvres et Correspondance inédites (Streckeisen-Moultou), 1861; Fragments inédits; Recherches biographiques et littéraires, A. Jansen, 1882.
Works translated from the French, 10 vols., 1773–74.
Letters: Sur différents Sujets, 5 vols., 1749–53; Lettres nouvelles sur le motif de sa retraite à la Campagne, adressées à M. de Malesherbes, 1780; Nouvelles lettres, 1789; Lettres au citoyen Lenieps, etc., 1793 (?); Correspondance originale et inédite avec Mme. Latour de Tranqueville et M. du Peyrou, 2 vols., 1803; Lettres inédites à Mme. d’Epinay (see Memoirs of Mme. d’Epinay), 1818; Lettres de Voltaire et de Rousseau à C. J. Panckoucke, 1828; Lettres inédites à M. M. Rey, 1858; Lettres à Mme. Dupin (in Le Portefeuille de Mme. Dupin), 1884; Lettres inédites (correspondence with Mme. Roy de Latour), published by H. de Rothschild, with preface by L. Claretie, 1892; Lettres (between Rousseau and “Henriette”), published by H. Buffenoir, 1902; Correspondance avec Léonard Usteri, 1910.
Translations: Original letters to M. de Malesherbes, d’Alembert, Mme. la M. de Luxembourg, etc., 1799, 1820; Eighteen letters to Mme. d’Houdetot, October 1757–March 1758, 1905.
Life, etc.: J. H. Fuessli, Remarks on the Writings and Conduct of Jean Jacques Rousseau, 1767; Stäel-Holsteim (Baroness de Rocco), Letters on the Work and Character of Jean Jacques Rousseau (translation), 1789, 1814; J. Morley, Rousseau, 1873, 1886; H. G. Graham, Rousseau (Foreign Classics for English Readers), 1882; T. Davidson, Rousseau and Education according to Nature (Great Educators), vol. ix., 1898; J. Texte, Jean Jacques Rousseau and the Cosmopolitan Spirit in Literature, etc. (translation), 1899; H. H. Hudson, Rousseau and Naturalism in Life and Thought (World’s Epoch Makers), 1903; F. Macdonald, Jean Jacques Rousseau, a new criticism, 1906; J. C. Collins, Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau in England, 1908.
The term “general” will means, in Rousseau, not so much “will held by several persons,” as will having a general (universal) object. This is often misunderstood; but the mistake matters the less, because the General Will must, in fact, be both.
- Althusius and the Federal Commonwealth
- Althusius’s Political Thought
- Bryce on America
- Burckhardt’s Pessimistic Conservatism
- Calhoun on Union & Liberty
- Chodorov’s Political Thought
- Chodorov, Socialism via Taxation (1946)
- Cicero’s Commonwealth
- Classics of Political Thought
- Cobden’s Political Thought
- Condorcet, 10th Epoch. Future Progress of Man (1796)
- Constant and Modernity
- Constant’s Political Thought
- Constant, The Liberty of Ancients Compared with that of Moderns (1819)
- Dante on Monarchy
- De Lolme and the English Constitution
- Eighteenth-century middle-class English radicalism
- Étienne de la Boétie, Discourse of Voluntary Servitude (1576)
- French Declaration of Rights
- Friedman on a Volunteer Army
- Friedman on Stability of Freedom
- George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and the Fabian Society
- Guizot and Representative Government
- Guizot on the rise of the Free Cities
- Herbert & State Compulsion
- Hobbes: Oakeshott’s Introduction to Leviathan
- Hume on the Origin of Government
- Hume’s Essays
- Julian, George Washington (1817-1899)
- Kant’s Political Philosophy
- Kant’s Political Philosophy II
- Karl Marx and the Liberal Critique of Socialism
- Lecky and Democracy
- Leggett and the Doctrine of Equal Rights
- Leoni on Voting and the Market
- Macaulay, Southey’s Colloquies (1830)
- Machan, Spencer A Century Later
- Mackay on the Socialist Dystopia
- Marcus Aurelius and the Scottish Enightenment
- Marxism as Farrago: A Dialog betwen H.B Acton & a Reader
- Milton and Freedom of Speech
- Milton on the Ideal Republic
- Milton on the Right to Depose a Tyrant King
- Milton’s Political Writings
- Minogue on Freedom
- Montesquieu and the Separation of Powers
- Montesquieu’s Mes Pensées: Editor’s Introduction
- Oakeshott and Hobbes
- Paul, The Liberty and Property Defence League
- Penn’s Life and Political Thought
- Personal Rights Association
- Plato’s The Laws - Jowett’s analysis
- Plato’s The Republic - Jowett’s analysis
- Read, To Abdicate or Not
- Richter’s Socialist Dystopia
- Rothbard on the Black Revolution
- Rothbard’s Review of Leoni, Freedom and the Law
- Rousseau as Political Philosopher
- Rousseau’s Political Thought
- Spencer & the State
- Spencer on Education
- Spencer on the Tyranny of Fashion (1854)
- Spencer, Proper Sphere of Government (1843)
- Spencer, The Right to Ignore the State (1851)
- Spinoza’s Political Theory
- Tacitus and Tyranny
- Taylor and American tyranny
- The Earl of Shaftesbury on Liberty and Harmony